Why is there no Henry VII

foundation for success in business and the professions, and not least
because it thought the Bible should be available to all believers.
Above all, its Protestant ethic called for discipline, both selfdiscipline in work and re-investment, and the discipline of others,
like women and workers and, of course, children in school. Small
boys, for the good of their souls and their success in this life, which
indicated their chances in the next, should spend long hours in
hard learning with serious moral content: the great classical
What became a sea change in education – a vital contribution to
the Miracle – caught up the author of the Shakespeare plays. As
portrayed by tradition and orthodox academic opinion, he was a
child of the Grammar School revival that was at the heart of the
change in English society sweeping through the second half of the
sixteenth century. But was he? In an attempt to answer this
question, or at least shed some light on it, we shall look in more
detail at the Tudor Grammar Schools and what they achieved. In
doing so we shall return to the question of the making of the
Miracle by way of an enduring puzzlement over the identity of the
man who was its greatest literary figure before the unquestionably
Puritan John Milton (a Grammar School product himself). The
place to start is with the reign of England’s first modern monarch,
the decline of the aristocracy, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the
mysterious absence of a »Shakespeare« play about Henry VII.
Why is there no Henry VII?
Shakespeare wrote a play for Henry IV (two parts), Henry V (one
part), Henry VI (three parts), and even Henry VIII. Why did he
not write one for Henry VII? The man who was to become Henry
VII appears at the end of Richard III as Henry Tudor, Duke of
Richmond, the Lancastrian candidate for the throne, who beat the
evil Yorkist Richard at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. This ended
the Wars of the Roses and started the brilliant Tudor dynasty. So
Henry VII as a Young Man
From the Receuil d’Arras
why didn’t Henry Tudor merit
a play of his own? The author
clearly had deep Lancastrian
sympathies and his portrayal of
Richard III is about as biased as
a dramatic portrait can get. It
would seem he had an agenda
to promote the Lancastrian and
Tudor cause, so why not
celebrate the glorious reign of
the first Tudor with at least a
one-part drama? It could be of
course that he did and it has
been lost, but there may be
good reasons to think the
omission was deliberate.
Shakespeare’s source for the history plays, Ralph Holinshed’s
Chronicles of the History of England, in the 1587 edition that he used,
covers Henry’s reign adequately. Bernard André, the blind tutor of
Henry’s son Prince Arthur, had written a life of his master, which
started the stream of anti-Yorkist Tudor propaganda. Polydore
Vergil in his Anglica Historia in 1534 produced what became the
official pro-Tudor history, very flattering to Henry. Shakespeare’s
contemporary, Francis Bacon, in 1622 published the first great
biography of an English king, his History of the Reign of King Henry
the Seventh. The material was there, the public demand for history
plays was there, the general urge to write pro-Tudor dramatic
propaganda was there, but for some reason the bard skipped this
king in the chronological sequence of Henrys.
We cannot get inside God’s memory so we can only conjecture
the reasons for the omission. The writer of the Shakespeare plays
was a monarchical romantic with a decidedly feudal view of the
divine right of kings, and of the rightfulness of the feudal order of
society. His history plays are about kings and nobles and their
ladies and their courts, and their dynastic quarrels and personal love
affairs. Even in the comedies, the social hierarchy remains intact.
The trading or middle classes do not play any part in the affairs of
state and, as in The Taming of the Shrew or The Merry Wives of
Windsor, they are fit only for comedy. His merchants in Venice are
the grandees of the Venetian city-state. Othello is a prince and a
general. The Jewish moneylender Shylock may (or may not) be
sympathetically portrayed, but he remains an outsider: the Doge
and his grandees rule Venice.
Shakespeare’s is a rigidly hierarchical world where the old
aristocracy runs things and plays its games of government and
power interspersed with wit and romance. His kings, of whom
Henry V is the epitome, should be just and wise and rule fairly, but
they also should rule absolutely. The lower orders are universally
buffoons and are in there for light relief or downright villainy.
They may sometimes be generously portrayed, like the common
soldiers in Henry V, but they are never even remotely in command
or ever shown to be capable of anything but supporting roles and
slapstick. In the comedies, those below stairs can outwit the
upstairs characters, as with Maria in Twelfth Night for example, but
this does not touch on the ordering of society; Malvolio is nothing
more than a steward, and the Duke still rules in Illyria.
The kings in particular are warriors and power brokers, and it is
their exploits in these departments that are his subject matter.
Henry V seems to have exhausted, for him, the possibilities of a
hero king in England. Henry VI was a pawn and went mad. His
play is about the Wars of the Roses, with its cast of power hungry
noblemen seeking to control the crown, and the villainous rebels
like Jack Cade, who sought to usurp royal power, but even then
only by falsely claiming royal descent. Evil rulers can be driven
from power, but by the responsible among the nobility and those
with legitimate claims, not by upstart commoners trying to pass as
royalty. Richard III was a continuation of this theme, and as far as
the author was concerned, with Richard’s death the matter ended.
Henry Tudor’s victory was hailed as a rightful triumph for the
House of Lancaster, and then left to rest.
Henry Tudor, as king, was not the stuff to excite a playwright like
the author of the histories. Henry was so efficient and capable that
apart from two minor rebellions he ruled without challenge. He
married Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the warring houses, and
married his daughter to James IV of Scotland, setting the scene for
the eventual union of the kingdoms. He lives in popular memory
almost wholly for his compassionate treatment of the rebel
Lambert Simnel. Henry recognized that the boy was simply a tool,
and having defeated the rebellion, he pardoned him and put him
to work as a spit turner in the royal kitchen.
He cleverly managed Parliament and taxation and filled the
chronically empty royal coffers, which left his surviving son, Henry
VIII, a very rich boy indeed. He expanded the system of Justices of
the Peace, which persists to this day, and which put the
administration of justice into the hands of volunteer gentry
responsible to the Crown. He reorganized the royal household as
the basis of administration, and some of their titles are still used for
ministers of the crown. He preferred royal marriages to royal wars
and dealt brilliant diplomatic deals with the Pope, the Emperor and
the continental powers, which brought peace and prosperity to
England after years of failure and devastation. As the common
verdict has it, he may not have been a great king, but he was an
astonishingly successful one.
I would even like to claim him as the first truly modern king: a
realist and a pragmatist. He had to change a country run by rival
mafia families (after the Wars of the Roses and the failure of
feudalism had brutalized them) into a country of citizens
responsible to a central bureaucracy under the king and his
appointed ministers. He preferred that these ministers not be
nobles, or only nobles that he created, and drew from the ranks of
burghers and lawyers, and churchmen that he favored. The old
formula we learned in school was accurate: »King and Town versus
Castle.« Tudor towns and their tradesmen expanded round
churches and cathedrals with their attached Grammar Schools.
Castles fell into disuse and were domesticated into residences or
were replaced by country houses. Efficiency, and direct
dependence on the monarch, became more important than
nobility in the governance of England.
Bureaucratic efficiency is not, however, the stuff of which great
and especially tragic drama is made. Henry had a colorful sex life,
and while being a good husband and father (feeling deeply the loss
of his eldest son, Arthur, and his wife) he is said to have slept with
three hundred women, getting two hundred seventy-three of them
pregnant. These may have been Yorkist slanders, but slander never
stopped Shakespeare in the other cases. However, it was not good
material for a pro-Tudor propagandist.
Despite the possibly scandalous tidbits, Henry was a sober, private
king, concerned with the details of government. He kept in fact a
quite cultivated and lively court as befitted a Renaissance prince,
but he was not given to public appearances and pandering to the
people. There were no royal »progressions« around the country as
with Elizabeth. In this he pushed further than did any of his
predecessors the use of »new men« who were, unlike the old
aristocrats, loyal directly to him and owed their livelihoods and
advancement to him. Such men included Richard Fox (no known
relative), the son of a humble yeoman who rose to be Bishop of
Winchester, Lord Privy Seal, founder of Corpus Christi College,
Oxford, and godfather to the future Henry VIII. In 1497 he had
been master at the school of the Guild of the Holy Cross in
Stratford on Avon.
This I think is the crux of the neglect by Shakespeare. Henry
made it his goal to curb and restrict the power of the old nobility
and did it supremely well. We had to wait until Louis XIV in
France to see such another successful attempt. He pushed laws
through Parliament to restrict the use of liveried retainers – in
effect abolishing the private armies the nobles had routinely kept in
the past. He let them keep their titles and high-sounding offices
(»Lord Great Chamberlain« etc.), but he hemmed them in with
taxes and required of them bonds that ruthlessly penalized
disloyalty. A measure of his success is that his son succeeded him
without challenge, something unheard of in the past. But in all this
he represented the wave of the future, of the dominance of the
rule of law and the centrality of trade that spelled the beginning of
the end of feudal society, with its rigid hierarchies and its familial
The old order lingered, but a new order was taking over that
meant the emergence of a new class eager for its share of
governance. Sean Cunningham (2007), in his excellent history of
Henry VII, shows in detail how this worked. Henry had been
isolated from the English aristocracy during his years in exile, and
he tended therefore to rely less on the noble courtiers, many of
whom were of suspect loyalty, and more and more on the new
men. He ruled through the royal council and around it gathered
»managing committees« that constituted »a core of executives and
common lawyers gathered permanently at Westminster.« He
created very few new titles of nobilty, but knighted many
commoners like Empson, Poynings and Bray, who became his
closest advisers. These new men foreshadowed Wolsey, Cecil,
Cromwell and Walsingham, and Henry made their fortunes
entirely dependent on himself in what Cunningham describes as »a
purely professional relationship created to streamline policy, and
one that made Henry’s new men more accountable and easier to
supervise.« He created, in effect, an efficient, central, meritocratic
bureaucracy, and in doing so reduced the powers of the
aristocracy, which continued to »shine at court« but was less likely
to try to usurp royal power.
The newly authenticated play of Richard II, Part One, formerly
known as Thomas of Woodstock, (Egan 2007) is overtly concerned
with exactly this issue: the use by the king of the new men of the
educated middle class, and the usurpation by them of the power of
the old nobility. There is not a shadow of a question where the
author’s sympathies lie. Again his portrait of the new men is a
caricature of greed and villainy, and is contrasted with the sense of
duty and obligation of the old nobility. This theme carries over
into Richard II proper with Bagot, Bushy and Green – the »caterpillars of the commonwealth.«
Cunningham cites an interesting play promoted by Cardinal John
Morton. Morton was Henry VII’s Wolsey, and among other things
raised Thomas More whose History of King Richard III (1557) was a
deep influence on the Shakespeare play. The play here in question
was Henry Medwall’s Fulgus and Lucrece, »performed before
courtiers« in 1497. Medwall (another new man) was Morton’s
chaplain, and his plot turns on the struggle between a nobleman
and a commoner for the hand of an heiress. In the end, says
Cunningham, it is the hard-working commoner rather than the
shallow and arrogant nobleman who gets the girl. This deserves
further study, and I can think of no such conflict or outcome in
any Shakespeare play.
Lawrence Stone (1965) has shown the aristocracy to have been »in
crisis« during the Tudor period. Its power was being eroded; its
lands were being sold to the tradesmen. In the end, the 17 Earl of
Oxford’s Grammar School at Earls Colne passed to a grocer, and
Stone uses him as the prime example among the aristocracy of the
loss of land to the traders and townsmen. Oxford’s sale of land to
the Harlackenden family in East Colne – and the lengthy lawsuits
that followed deep into the seventeenth century, is almost a
textbook case of the decline of aristocratic landholding and the
growing influence of the bourgeoisie (Pearson 2005). Shakespeare
looked eternally backwards to the feudal society that was his ideal
of governance; but he saw what was coming. So he just kept silent
about the man who more than anyone helped to usher in the new
world order: the order of pragmatism, efficiency, bureaucracy,
meritocracy and contract: the modern world as we know it. He
did not write Henry VII. Yet Shakespeare was caught in a trap here
because he was himself an almost prototypical part of that new
If he was indeed the Grammar School boy from Stratford-onAvon that is claimed, then he was an end product of the process
that was geared to the production of the new men he seemed to
despise. He was not an aristocrat but a meritocrat; he was one of
the new men who made his own way to success. He was a son of
the trading classes aspiring to a coat of arms and the ranks of the
gentry. He should have reveled in the memory of Henry VII.
Above all, he would have been a product of the Grammar School
system that was itself a conscious product of the policy of
educating these new men. This conscious state policy was a
confluence of the twin influences of the Renaissance revival of
classical learning, and the Protestant Reformation that brought the
Bible to all believers and the Calvinist work ethic to life in general.
These two powerful forces were crossed with rising nationalism
and the desire to have a literate middle class to increase the national
wealth and power. How did a child of this surge of modernization
come to have the obvious reactionary political and cultural biases
we see in the Shakespeare plays?
The matter is complicated, or perhaps, as is the case with so many
authorship puzzles, simplified, by the »mysterious nobleman«
theory, which would have Shakespeare as a front man for Edward
de Vere, 17 Earl of Oxford. One relevant matter for our
immediate purposes is that Oxford’s ancestor, the 13th Earl, was
Henry Tudor’s main supporter and appears as such at the end of
Richard III. In his campaign against the power of the nobles, Henry
VII is said to have turned on his supporter, the 13 Earl, and levied
a huge fine against him for having more liveried retainers than the
king himself. This, according to the story, started the decline in the
fortunes of the Oxford earldom.
Some observers, like Charlton Ogburn (1984), think this is a very
good reason why there is no play of Henry VII. The omission was
Oxford’s revenge for the attack on the finances of his lineage! This
whole story originated with Francis Bacon, and Cunningham finds
no other reference to it and thinks there is no basis for it. Henry
needed these loyal noblemen as much as he needed the new men,
but the promotion of the latter, and their central part in all future
forms of government, certainly undermined the privileges of the
former. As Cunningham puts it: »Something deeply important to
the long-term development of England’s ruling structures occurred
during Henry VII’s reign.« This disruption of the feudal order was
obviously something that the author of the plays seemed to feel
personally and disliked at some profound level. It could well have
been the basis for the Earl of Oxford’s reluctance to grant the first
Tudor monarch his own play.
What Education?
There has been a checkered history of attitudes to Shakespeare’s
possible education. There is no record of his having attended either
school or university. At one extreme, then, those who take Ben
Jonson’s words from his enigmatic eulogy in the First Folio (1623)
literally have credited the author with »smalle Latine and lesse
Greeke.« In other words, they prefer to think that Shakespeare had
no education worth considering, and was an untutored natural
genius. In the charming words of Milton’s sonnet about him, he
was »warbling his native woodnotes wild.«